Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Barbara Comyns – Our Spoons Came From Woolworths

Book Cover

A long time before you could buy Britney’s latest single for £3.99.

Publisher: Virago (Little Brown)
Pages: 196
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-844-08927-7
First Published: 1950
Date Reviewed: 28th March 2015
Rating: 5/5

Sophia marries Charles; neither family is happy about it. The couple lives on the poverty line; Sophia becomes a model for art students, Charles tries to make something of his artwork. They aren’t well matched and the conflicts are worsened by Charles’s outspoken relatives.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a mostly-autobiographical book about the hard years of a young woman.

It is quite difficult not to look at the way in which this book relates to Comyns herself; the way it’s written suggests it was a therapeutic exercise. It is a long tale told in a short time, spanning several years in 196 pages.

The writing – mainly the grammar – isn’t particularly good, however there is the sense that this is part of the problem the heroine suffers. It’s not that she’s uneducated, rather the writing is a subtle addition to what is actually said. Our heroine is weak, a doormat if you will, but does not really realise it. She takes a lot of flack that women, even in her time, would not have put up with. We are never given a direct reason, but one can assume her wish for a nice life and the death of her parents has much to do with it. The prose reads as though hurried, as though if she doesn’t write it all quickly everything will be forgotten.

Sophia’s problem is her husband, Charles. He blames her when she falls pregnant (her knowledge of contraception was non-existent at the time), he lives his own life, expects her to do everything he says, and his family only add to it. The book provides an incredibly damning portrait of a manipulative, highly selfish person, and at times other people.

So this is by and large a sad story, the cruelty is heartbreaking, but Comyns has the odd laugh. Her jokes are jibes at silly social ideas and customs, of local cultural issues. Because they are in keeping with the written style, they end up sounding somewhat innocent even when they aren’t.

The biggest social issue, then, is of the changing domestic situation of the time. Sophia works. She earns more than Charles ever will and this is simply not correct according to Charles and his family. What Charles wants he should get and so this is as much an issue of adults spoiled as children as it is a married couple not seeing eye to eye. Any children Sophia has will be spoiled only if it suits those looking after them. And as Sophia comes to find, Charles is far from unique.

Poverty is a close second. Charles uses up a lot of money but they would be poor anyway. Comyns shows how hospitals could be awkward for the poor even if they had support. Sophia gives birth and from her story emerges a lack of communication. Perhaps Sophia lacks knowledge, but it’s more likely those in charge simply didn’t bother trying to explain to her what was happening, why they were doing what they did. (The book is told from Sophia’s perspective.) There is a marked difference between this and a later hospital stay during which the character has more money.

What’s interesting about Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is that the story isn’t particularly, well, interesting, but the book manages to utterly captivate. There isn’t even much of an ending; there’s no climax, just happier times. It’s the story of a woman who is poor, has some luck, but lives an average life overall. You’ll learn a lot from this book – it’s so far away from our present day.

This is a book that makes you get involved. It doesn’t ask you to cheer happiness or emphasise with sadness, but it does pull you in and whilst the author may have planned this – who knows? – the character seems oblivious to the effect.

We can’t know why Sophia wrote her book but we can guess why Comyns did, and she succeeds in all she sets out to do. Woolworths may no longer be around but Sophia’s spoons remain and in that fact lies an excellent book.

Related Books

None yet.

J R R Tolkien – The Fellowship Of The Ring

Book Cover

An unlikely group of people make the initial journey to destroy a ring that holds an evil power.

Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 398
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 0-00-712970-X
First Published: 1954
Date Reviewed: 27th October 2010
Rating: 2/5

Bilbo Baggins wants to leave his home and he entrusts the ring he stole from Gollum (chronicled in The Hobbit) to his nephew Frodo. The wizard Gandalf tells Frodo that he must take it away, so that it won’t reach the hands of the dark lord who is back to claim it. And so Frodo goes, picking up travellers along the way, on the first stage of a perilous journey.

You can probably tell by the way I wrote the summary that I really did not enjoy this book. I would like to say it was because my copy was 398 pages of tiny print, but it wasn’t only that. I found it incredibly hard to concentrate on the text most of the time, and actually, because I was trying so hard to give it a good go, I didn’t realise what the real problem was until I reached the end.

Tolkien doesn’t adhere to one of the biggest rules – he tells rather than shows. So much of the book is filled with superfluous descriptions of often minor details that no one needs to know; and then, once he’s written reams of description, he repeats himself to tell you about the place the characters just left or to tell you about a place that is nearly identical to that which they were in moments ago. Once, as a child, I wrote a meticulous account of every single pothole and electricity unit I passed when on a train journey. I would never consider it worthy of publishing, but perhaps if I’d given it to Tolkien he could have made some money on it for me.

Because to be honest I do wonder about his reasons for such needless description. If my copy hadn’t been so densely printed then the page number would have been double. Did he give himself a word count he really couldn’t reach and thus filled it with waffle?

This leads me to the writing style. Again, I’m afraid, I was disappointed. The writing is rather simple in some ways but it’s tedious, and reads as though no editor was involved. Tolkien applies to his writing the repetitive usage of he/she said. He adds onto it constant depiction that, although in this referenced paragraph is probably meant to apply humour to the scene and illustrate that Frodo was getting annoyed, just makes reading the book annoying:

…said Frodo evasively.

…said Frodo, not liking the reminder.

…said Frodo with his mouth full.

… said Frodo sharply.

The story itself isn’t bad and reminded me of David Edding’s The Belgariad (which was released years later and thus was no doubt inspired by Tolkien), and I think back to how Eddings made a similar story, of a journey fraught with danger, comic and readable.

Certainly The Fellowship Of The Ring improves when the rest of the characters come into the story, because there is more dialogue and less space for description. Tolkien even manages to evoke emotion when he talks of the homeliness of Lothlorien. He includes many different locales and weather, which when looked back on are quite amazing.

But I feel as though I’ve read all three books in the way that it took so long to get through just one. I can’t say I will attempt the other two because quite frankly I think I’d prefer to read Lauren Kate’s Torment, and we know how I felt about Fallen. I read this book because I wanted to have experienced it (the same motive for Pride And Prejudice and Jane Eyre, both I fell in love with).

If Tolkien had pondered a bit more, thought higher of his audience and their intellect, and believed in their imagination, maybe this book would’ve been better.

Related Books

Book coverBook cover

Marghanita Laski – The Victorian Chaise-Longue

Book Cover

The definitive caution for any wannabe time traveller.

Publisher: Persephone Books
Pages: 99
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-9534780-4-0
First Published: 1953
Date Reviewed: 27th February 2011
Rating: 4.5/5

Melanie is recovering after months of suffering Tuberculosis. She is much better, but when she moves out of the bedroom to sit on the chaise-longue she bought from an antique shop, she wakes up to find herself in the body of a very sick woman in the Victorian times.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue is a rather weird book in the sense that it is confusing and unsettling. It is not really the horror as described when it was first published, but there are some horrific moments in it.

You may come to the table thinking that the book revolves around doctors and medical treatment, I certainly thought that the bad elements would include Melanie being subjected to medical procedures that we have long since abandoned, but Laski makes the issue very simple.

Melanie’s problem is that she doesn’t know why she’s back in time, what the circumstances of the person whose body she inhabits is (except that they are sick), and that she is unable to articulate herself because of the limitations of the body. Melanie is in the body of one Milly Baines, a young woman who of course has no idea of the concept of things we take for granted, for example aeroplanes. Melanie can think about telling the Victorians about aeroplanes but she cannot say the word because it doesn’t exist in the time she is in. The discovery of what Melanie can and cannot do is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book because it involves many different things, not just speech.

As well as the above-mentioned frustration, Melanie spends a lot of time trying to work out exactly why and how she got to the past. The how may be obvious, but the why is not. In fact because the reader’s knowledge is no more than Melanie’s the frustration crosses over from fiction to reality – part of the genius of this novel is that the reader never has more or less comprehension than the character. The topics covered are relevant today in much the same way as in Melanie’s time – the book was written in the 1950’s and the concepts explored match our own current way of thinking so today’s reader can understand the differences between Melanie’s life and Milly’s perfectly.

One topic I’d like to highlight is spiritual ecstasy, because Laski’s writing on it really got me thinking. Melanie likens the feeling of ecstasy after she has had sex to the feeling one has when in deep prayer. The two situations may be poles apart, but you can see where her theory lies in reference to spiritual feeling. I noted down the following quote:

It is the ecstasy that is to be feared, she said with shuddering assurance, it is a separation and a severance from reality and time, and it is not safe. The only thing that is safe is to feel only a little, hold tight to time, and never let anything sweep you away as I have been swept – and perhaps that is how, only how I can be swept back.

From this quote one can understand not just Melanie’s thoughts but also their progression as she moves from one idea to the next. It would be useful for me to say at this point that prior to the switch Melanie was bubbly and comes across as someone who acts on impulse. Thus one can see just how confused her mind becomes as she begins to question the intimate details of who she is and how it might relate to the switch.

There are other concepts that I haven’t covered because I can’t really tell you everything. Suffice to say that, like Melanie, the reader must dissect every last bit of information available.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue is a brilliant little snippet of writing that will leave you wondering for days. The page count may be small but the legacy is huge. It’s definitely made me think twice about wanting to explore the past first-hand.

Related Books

Book cover

C S Lewis – The Horse And His Boy (The Chronicles Of Narnia)

Book Cover

The story takes on a middle-Eastern flavour and we travel to the lands beyond Narnia.

Publisher: (Numerous, the one pictured is the Harper Collins 1998 edition)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
First Published: 1954
Date Reviewed: 14th May 2010
Rating: 3/5

The second of the lesser-known books, The Horse And His Boy has been as equally forgotten as The Magician’s Nephew, though it’s easy to see why as the story bares hardly any relation to the others.

Shashta doesn’t want to become the slave of the man who turns up at his father’s house in Calormen so he steals away with the man’s talking horse (a Narnian who was captured as a foal) with the aim of reaching Narnia. In trying to escape a lion their paths cross with Aravis, a Calormen princess on the run, and her own talking horse, Hwin. All four decide to carry on their journey together. But when they reach the capital things don’t go according to plan, the Narnian royal family are visiting and mistake Shashta for someone else. And Queen Susan’s suitor has created a problem for everyone.

The Horse And His Boy is the simplest of the chronicles, being very much a spin-off. It’s not necessary to read it and this is a pity, one gets a sense that Lewis felt he had to write some more rather than he wanted to. The land of Calormen destroys the setting of Narnia – Narnia is so different to our world with it’s talking animals, but Calormen is more the regular exotic dream, in keeping with reality from our history books. It’s also hard to accept, perhaps, that Narnia isn’t in it’s own world, that there are other lands surrounding it, because the way Lewis wrote it in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, although it was hinted at, the feeling was that it was by itself.

The story is ok, but as the majority of it takes place outside of Narnia there is little for the reader to relate to. It does a good job in showing us the everyday life of the kings and queens of Narnia during the period of their reign at Cair Paravel – perhaps this book ought to have focused on them more.

There isn’t so much a Biblical theme to The Horse And His Boy as there are the others, Aslan is still Jesus, but the only Biblical story I can relate to it is the road to Damascus after Jesus resurrects. There is, however, an overall theme of Jesus helping his followers, one could compare part of the book to the Christian poem Footprints.

The Horse And His Boy is a nice short read but not as compelling as the rest of the series. Fans will devour it but otherwise it’s possible to skip it in favour of Prince Caspian.

Related Books

Book coverBook cover

C S Lewis – The Magician’s Nephew (The Chronicles Of Narnia)

Book Cover

The story of the beginning of a triumphant creation.

Publisher: (Numerous, the one pictured is the Harper Collins 1998 edition)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
First Published: 1955
Date Reviewed: 10th April 2010
Rating: 5/5

This may be an old book and from a very popular series but it has been overlooked and forgotten by many. Thus I am making a point of writing about it.

Polly and Digory didn’t expect to find themselves in Uncle Andrew’s study when they went exploring in the attic. When Uncle Andrew catches them he gives them rings that send them to worlds far away from our own universe. The children visit an ancient world and finally Narnia, a place on the brink of life. But accompanying them is someone they fought to leave behind.

The Magician’s Nephew explains how Narnia came to be – the beautiful land, the talking animals, and, most importantly, explains the wardrobe into which Lucy later travels. It is a great short book, just long enough for children, and a quick read for adults.

Lewis conjures the perfect fantasy full of discovery. Although the children only visit two worlds there were plenty for them to choose from. An adult will register the humour in the book that a child will look over. That’s not to say it’s unsuitable for a child of course – Lewis has used the same tactic Disney do whereupon he fills a children’s story with comedy that the parent reading the story will appreciate. The writing style was clearly developed for children but that’s neither here nor there when there’s such a fantastic story on offer.

Something that has been discussed greatly in recent years is the correlation between the Narnia books and Christianity. You may have heard that Aslan is Jesus and that his humiliation at the hands of the witch in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe is a clever retelling of the crucifixion; The Magician’s Nephew is Genesis, the story of creation and the serpent in the garden. It’s actually rather fun realising which parts of the book relate to what Biblical events.

This book is a timeless classic and you can do no wrong in picking it up and acquainting yourself with the introduction of a famous tale. Put on the yellow ring and see where it takes you.

Related Books

Book coverBook cover